There is probably nothing to be done anymore about what is to me the regrettable fact that American culture is obsessed by race. One may weary of the apparently inexhaustible fascination of the British with class, but at least class is an inherently interesting subject. Race is not—unless of course you are one of the crackpot theorists of white or black racial supremacy. The subject holds an artificial but apparently boundless interest, however, from its centrality to American social history, and this interest is self-reinforcing. Race is important to us and will doubtless always be important to us because it has always been important to us. That importance makes it virtually unignorable for a novelist like Tom Wolfe who aspires to a “realistic” style. But for Wolfe race is only a means—and one of many means at that—to an end whose significance is more permanent.

As does Bonfire of the Vanities, Mr Wolfe’s new novel revives one of this century’s archetypal racial confrontations—this time the rape (or alleged rape) of a white woman by a black man. From Native Son to To Kill a Mockingbird we learned to have but one expectation of such a mise en scène: a tragedy born of apparently ineradicable hatred and fear. But when the daughter of Inman Armholster, a tycoon in the new, go-ahead, progressive Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate,” claims that she has been raped by Fareek “the Cannon” Fanon, star running back of the victorious Georgia Tech football team, the result is a comic mélange of politics, corruption, and money in which both race and sex (as the term is popularly understood) are not much more than trace ingredients.

But sex in another sense is central to the novel, for running parallel with the story of a possible rape is the story of a possible bankruptcy, which is seen both by its victim, another Atlanta tycoon called Charlie Croker, and Tom Wolfe as a symbolic emasculation. Charlie is the “man in full” of the title. A former football hero himself, and a veteran of Vietnam, he is a massive man called Cap’m Charlie by the (mainly black) retainers at “Turpmtine,” his 29,000-acre plantation in South Georgia, now mainly valuable not for its pine resin but for its thoroughbred Tennessee walking horses and its quail shooting. But Charlie has overreached himself. He has built a forty-story office building in what he hopes will become an “edge city” of Atlanta, but which he cannot rent. As a result, he owes PlannersBanc over half-a-billion dollars and is threatened with the loss not only of Croker Concourse and Croker Worldwide Foods but also of Turpmtine, his house in Buckhead, his private jets, and everything else he owns.

The excellence of Mr Wolfe’s novel is displayed in several expertly managed dramatic episodes designed to show off Charlie’s brute masculinity—on a quail shoot, or picking up a rattlesnake with his bare hands, or entertaining a house full of guests with the gross physicality of the copulation of one of his mares and a stallion—and the reaction to it of those around him. Most notably, we focus on the barely suppressed dislike and envy of the sissy salarymen of PlannersBanc who delight in putting Charlie through a “workout session” designed more to humiliate him than to recover his plainly inadequate assets. Equally impressive is the author’s telling of the story of Conrad Hensley, an employee of Croker Global Foods in Oakland, California, who is laid off as a result of Charlie’s belt-tightening and subsequently experiences an almost-incredible series of adventures that take him by way of prison in Alameda County, California, to Atlanta and a seemingly fated encounter with his former employer.

If this seems like a lot to be going on here, that’s because it is. But it is by no means all that is going on. We must also pay attention to a young black lawyer called Roger Too White (actually Roger White II, but renamed by some of his classmates at Morehouse), called upon to defend Fareek Fanon on the rape charge—if one is filed, as it is by no means certain it will be—and Wesley Dobbs Jordan, Roger’s classmate at Morehouse and now mayor of Atlanta, who sees a way to exploit the crisis for political gain. In addition there is Jordan’s challenger, a black demagogue called André Fleet who secretly receives money from Inman Armholster; one of the PlannersBanc sissies called Raymond Peepgass who is the victim of a ruinous paternity suit and seeks an illegal profit from Charlie’s bankruptcy; Charlie’s ex-wife, Martha, whom Peepgass romances; and his new, much younger wife, Serena, with whom he finds he has nothing in common. And this is to say nothing of Charlie’s sixteen-year-old son, a lost soul called Wally; or of Conrad’s wife, two children, and prison acquaintances; or of various other minor characters clamoring for our attention.

The fertility of Tom Wolfe’s invention in creating so many interesting characters and so many interesting situations to put them in far outstrips his sense of fictional architecture and leaves him with an annoying number of loose ends only vaguely and inadequately tied up in a final “Epilogue.” This is a 742-page book which one comes away from wishing it were twice as long. Even thematically, we feel he has scarcely begun to do justice to such socially prominent “issues”—raised presumably for the reason that they are socially prominent —as date rape, trophy wives, urban racial politics, the black middle class, the criminal justice system, college athletics, patterns of urban and regional development, immigration, the social function of art, and rap music among many others. Thoughts on all of these matters and manners, some of them remarkable for their shrewdness or wisdom, are translated into dramatic form and swirl around the central episodes involving Charlie and Conrad, but they often do more to obscure the focus of those episodes than to complement them.

Moreover, I am one of those who finds Wolfe’s trademark stylistic tics—the liberal use of ellipses, the incessant mockery of his characters’ accents, the tortured combinations of vowels and consonants meant to represent ambient noise—more annoying than charming. And I am suspicious of his penchant for self-conscious phrasemaking —here, for example, we have colorful neckwear described as a “pizza-grenade tie” or an upper-class hairstyle as a “Palm Beach crash helmet”—as if he were writing in order to be included in future dictionaries of quotations. There is also something just slightly inauthentic and literary-sounding in some of his pastiche of black ghetto-talk, especially in mock rap numbers:

Gon’ put my jimbo
Up yo’ shanks akimbo!
Without no shuckin’ words,
No mind-suckin’ words!
You get my meanin’?
Or you want a skull cleanin’?

“Up yo’ shanks akimbo”? I don’t think so. Like Conrad’s adviser in the ways of prison life, Wolfe tends to give too much emphasis to the injunction to “use da mouth”—that is, to talk in the ghetto-gang patois, which is also the prison patois—as a means of staking out one’s territory.

But all such cavils pale into comparative insignificance next to what the novel does triumphantly right. This is, rather astonishingly, to put the circus of business and civic life in late twentieth-century America into a moral context which does not sound foreign or artificial in spite of its provenance in ancient Rome. For Conrad in prison becomes a Stoic, inspired by a book sent to him in error but soon taken up as the only way he finds to make sense of what has happened and will continue to happen to him.

What little bit Conrad had learned about philosophy at Mount Diablo [Community College] had seemed to concern people who were free and whose main problem was to choose from among life’s infinite possibilities. Only Epictetus began with the assumption that life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business, and that fairness and unfairness are beside the point. Only Epictetus, so far as Conrad knew, was a philosopher who had been stripped of everything, imprisoned, tortured, enslaved, threatened with death. And only Epictetus had looked his tormenters in the eye and said, “You do what you have to do, and I will do what I have to do, which is live and die like a man.” And he had prevailed.

Quite unexpectedly, for us as much as for Conrad and Charlie, what it means to “live and die like a man” proves a question whose vitality is unaffected by decades of unisex morality.

Tom Wolfe’s speciality, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, has always been his ability to cut through fashionable cant— however fondly he reproduces it in the course of doing so—in order to get at the permanent and human drama which such cant is generally intended to obscure. In A Man in Full, the drama is an almost Racinean one of honor and duty, but translated for the benefit of our trivial times from tragic into comic terms. When Charlie is given a miraculous way out of his financial troubles in exchange for betraying a friend, he gloomily reflects that “I can salvage my honor—and lose everything I have.” But “why kid myself? This is Atlanta—where your ‘honor’ is the things you possess. Who’s going to come visit a man who has salvaged his honor but lost his house on Blackland road? Nobody.”

This is true enough so far as it goes, but not entirely true. Or at least Charlie behaves as if it were not entirely true, as if there were people whose opinion of him depended not on what he had but on what he did—and as if it were at least imaginable that their opinion might be supposed to matter more than anyone else’s. I think it more a strength than a weakness in the novel that we are never quite sure who these people are. Maybe there aren’t any actually living in Atlanta. Maybe the honorable man has no other audience for his actions than the comically anachronistic “Zeus,” to whose worship Conrad dedicates himself in the absence of any other gods worthy of his devotion. And yet we cannot ignore in reading it, any more than Tom Wolfe could ignore in writing it, that this book was intended to be—and is—a bestseller. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding at a time when we have every reason to believe that “it’s the economy, stupid,” there must be a lot of people in whom Charlie’s valedictory reflections on material wealth at least strike a distantly reverberant chord:

How vain and petty it all was, all this exulting over … things! One day—soon enough!— we’ll all be gone, and there’ll be people rooting through all this … stuff … like maggots… . What are antiques, after all, but objects other maggots went over before you? And what is this whole house … in the sacred Buckhead … but a place he was renting until the next group of renters, as desperate to live in Buckhead as he was, took over… . Merely renting! Of course, we think we’ve bought these things, we think we own them. What a marvelous piece of self-deception! … You’re only occupying the space until your mortal hide becomes hopelessly decrepit. Your children aren’t going to keep the marvelous old place going… . They won’t waste two tears thinking about the old manse with all its … things … except to get their hands on the money that flows from all the new maggots rooting through the remains… .

Wolfe tailors this melancholy thought to our times by denying Charlie a grand death-bed exit and instead making him an itinerant evangelist of the Zeussian faith pioneered by Conrad—for religion like race can hardly be written of any more without irony. But it is perhaps as much as a contemporary novelist can do to suggest that, beneath the irony and the sardonic humor and the proliferation of “issues” that fill our lives like possessions, more permanent things are at stake.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 5, on page 67
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